As I noted in part 1 of this series, the concept of cults is still undeniably intriguing. I’m writing this series of articles to reveal some of the answers to questions I’ve been asked. Some find out that I was born and raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and wonder how I came to realize I wanted out of the cult—although I didn’t even realize I was in a cult at first. They also wonder, if I ever miss parts of my old life or does it become a challenge to stay away? I wanted to write about this because it is not always cut and dry. This is why former cultists offer a valuable perspective on what to look out for, how to protect others, and what works to combat the misinformation and other tactics used. This matters because the cults are not disappearing, and they are all closer to you and your day-to-day life than you would imagine. How long do we suppose we’ll continue to see these groups with their black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking?
In the last article, I mentioned political and religious groups of people coming together with a similar group-think phenomenon. Some people think that a group is a cult only if they are coming together with a sinister motive and engaging in anti-social activities. This isn’t always the best way to recognize a cult because some so-called “benign” cults will still engage with others outside of their belief system. Neither should a group be considered a cult merely because of its unorthodox beliefs. Many people hold ideas and philosophies which are against traditional ones, yet they aren’t cultists. These are just two of the numerous interpretations most people tend to make when they think of a cult. Yes, destructive cults with acts of violence and criminal practices do exist, but the point is they are not the only types. Although the cult is typically authoritarian, it can appear to be more mainstream. From within, you can also feel like you have a pretty ordinary life. Still, you will have a leader or group of people with a lot of control over your decisions and goals.
Several cults have the ability to appear mainstream in particular settings like the family structure, school, or work. This was part of my upbringing, and I can understand how some of the public are always shocked to learn the amount of control and influence held over Jehovah’s Witness members. With these members continuing to work and go to school around others, it could easily be misinterpreted as us wanting to be an integral part of society. This was not the case as they clearly taught and still teach members that their happiness comes from the approved performance within the group, along with an elitist thinking—believing they have the best way of life. As is the case in any cult, there was always that us vs them element. Cult influence is designed to disrupt your authentic identity and replace it with a new identity. For many of us coming out of a cult, especially if you were born and raised in it, you will not know your authentic self at first.
I recall the first part of my journey involving self-discovery. It took a number of years, and I was overwhelmed with new ideas, information, and influences. I was a nervous wreck trying to make friends too. You wouldn’t have known it because I hid how I felt. I recognized that I would have to be careful not to go from one cult or cultlike influence right into another. Now some consider Jehovah’s Witnesses relatively harmless since most of their teachings and practices aren’t glaringly out of step with societal and/or theological norms. Them being a cult is not as obvious to some, but I reached out to ten former members from a variety of economic, ethnic, and social backgrounds. I wanted them to list the techniques they felt were used most to keep members in line. These were the things that alerted them to the reality of being in a cult. I agreed with all and had honestly forgotten about a couple of tactics.
The following were the most frequently mentioned to retain control and the wording was quite similar whenever I interviewed someone. Inside of a Jehovah’s Witness world everything was presented as binary choices (black and white thinking), transgressions as determined by the leadership were to be acknowledged and shared with parents and elders of the group, fear of expulsion was always present, your right to question was discouraged or suppressed, freedom to interact with anyone on the outside of the group was limited, rewards/punishments such as private or public announcements regarding your admirable or wrong conduct were used, social isolation was implemented through teaching outsiders are to be avoided due to bad influences or dangers you can’t possibly see, dating and marriage were restricted to JW members only, and the use of new words as if you have your own language—cult speak, as I always call it.
This was the use of words and phrases among the members such as the truth, worldly people, unbelievers, theocratic, new system, new order, the brothers, the faithful slave, spiritual food, and so on. There were a lot and I have heard former Scientologists and former Mormons talk about the change of language from their groups to ordinary life outside of it. Classic cult behavior, if I may say so myself!
This brings me to some questions: when something said or taught doesn’t make sense, why do cult members keep falling for it? Why do members have no trouble overlooking the “bad behavior” of the group or the leader/leaders? Why is it typically a complicated process to walk away from a cult? What kind of support system does the cult member need in order to move on and stay moved on? I can’t wait to answer those questions and share more in order to help those who have left cults and protect others from falling into their social influence.
Rachael’s creative and biographical writing can all be found at the link below. Paperbacks, hardcovers, and eBooks are available. The memoirs cover starting a new life outside of a cult, mental health themes, surviving breast cancer, living with autoimmune diseases and more. The poetry includes many of these same themes, social issues, and relationships. Paranormal fiction will be coming soon… Click HERE.